VOD film review: King Richard
James R | On 09, Jan 2022
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Cast: Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn
“The most dangerous creature on the Earth is a woman who knows how to think. There ain’t nothing she can’t do.” Those were the words of Richard Williams’ mother to him years ago, and he repeats them to his young daughters, Venus Williams (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton).
The fact that we already know the names of these tennis legends tells you everything we need about King Richard, a biopic not of the Williams sisters, but of their dad. It’s a seemingly odd decision for the film, but that’s not the fault of the movie – that’s the fault of the expectations we’ve been taught to have from decades of sports movies. By taking an unexpected route into the arena, King Richard manages to be about more than just tennis.
Tennis, though, is certainly the number one priority for Richard, who has planned out his daughters’ lives before they were born. He spends his time working hard with them to put that plan into action, from court practices in all kinds of weather to videotaping them and making his own audition tapes to impress a coach into recruiting them. It’s little surprise, then, when he barges into a training session between John McEnroe and Peter Sampras and their coach, Paul Cohen (an entertainingly frank Tony Goldwyn) – and, tellingly, even less of a surprise that Paul should end up falling in line with Richard’s plan and agree to take on Venus.
A few clashes of teaching style and personality later and coach Rick Macci (a superbly understated Jon Bernthal) is on the scene instead, and the family are relocating from Compton to Palm Beach, Florida. And, meanwhile, the tennis world is starting to realise that two new powerhouses are on the sidelines waiting to steamroll the competition.
Whether they should go on to the junior circuit or wait to turn professional so they avoid burning out too young is perhaps the crux of the movie’s longest section, and it’s a debate that cuts right of the heart of the film’s concerns. Screenwriter Zach Baylin ties together the pressures to conform with the usual prodigy path through the profession with the family’s outsider status as Black players on the fringe of a predominantly white sport. Holding them together is Richard’s determination for his daughters not to fall in with all the other tennis players, rising above the expectations facing them due to their race, class and – yes – their overbearing dad.
Venus and Serena are both exec-producers of the film, which means that they’ve endorsed the film’s focus on their father. That also means a lot of rough edges have been sanitised and smoothed out to make Richard a more straightforward good guy. But there’s complexity to his father figure, a guy who will do anything to stand up to men in the street hitting on his teenage stepdaughters and who isn’t afraid to call out the privilege and patronising attitudes on display in the sport’s wealthier circles.
Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are excellent as the sisters, Sidney capturing Venus’ burgeoning confidence in her own abilities and Singleton sinking her teeth into Serena’s frustration being in her sibling’s shadow. Aunjanue Ellis is superb as their mother, Oracene “Brandy” Williams, who reminds both us and Richard that she was a key part of raising the two – and of nurturing and shaping their tennis talents. Together, they bring a lived-in nuance to the Williams family, enough to allow us to question Richard’s methods.
But this is Will Smith’s show, and he delivers one of the best turns of his career as the driven, protective, compassionate and relentless patriarch. In every scene and exchange, he balances the shades of Richard’s humanity with his consistent motivations of wanting the best for his young women. Smith’s movie-star charisma is all too fitting for a character whose dominating presence threatens to overshadow his own children, but the film knowingly addresses that tension head-on, making for a more interesting portrait of a sporting family than a conventional biopic.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green still finds the time for their tennis to do the talking, with some fizzing forehands and thumping serves making an impression on each and every opponent. Building up to Venus’ pro tennis debut, the careful pacing and escalating stakes keep us emotionally invested in their rise through the ranks – while also knowing that it doesn’t have to show us everything that would follow. The Williams sisters’ legends, after all, are inspiration enough. This is a sports movie that goes beyond the genre to think about the work required to go against the prevailing winds of perception, the work of the generations before that make such journeys possible and the work still required for generations of sporting talent in the future.